“One of the problems is that I internalise everything. I can’t express anger; I grow a tumour instead” (Woody Allen)
The greatest test of any relationship is what happens when someone lets you down – broken promises, missed deadlines, poor behaviour, less than average performance, negligence, bad attitudes, etc. These disappointments initially may engender surprise, but later irritation, frustration and even anger. Not having the courage to confront the people causing these disappointments, however, leads to disappointment in oneself: “I should have said something.” “I know that I should speak to this person about the issue, but I don’t believe that I have the skills to be able to confront the person effectively.” “I fear the consequences of me confronting this person, so I will rather keep quiet.” “Maybe the person will rectify the issue on their own.”
We used to live in a more tolerant world. As Tom Peters notes: “Build-ups to war could last decades. Smouldering corporate ineffectiveness could take eons to burst into flames. Lousy marriages festered for years and then more years. No more. The marketplace is unforgiving. One strike – whether a new product foul-up or a terrorist with a dirty bomb – and you’re (we’re!) out. Thus, continual organisational effectiveness – which is, after all, nothing more than human relations effectiveness – is of the utmost urgency.” (Foreword: Crucial Confrontations – Patterson, et al).
Most people typically respond to relational disappointments in one of two ways:
- Violence – verbal, emotional, or even physical violence. This response adopts the attitude of ‘I am going to get back at you. I am going to censure you. I am going to cut you out of my life. I am going to punish you.’
- Avoidance – ignoring the issue, not speaking up, putting distance between themselves and the aggressor. This response adopts the attitude of ‘I am not strong enough to confront this person. To preserve my sanity, I am going to let this pass. I am just going to hint that we need to do better. I am going to act like I never saw/experienced anything.’
Both responses disappoint and undermine relational foundations. Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, after decades of research and in their excellent book, Crucial Conversations, offer another possible response (effective crucial confrontation) and supply powerful tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations and bad behaviour. Inter alia, the book teaches one how to:
- Permanently resolve failed promises and missed deadlines
- Transform broken rules and bad behaviours into productive accountability
- Strengthen relationships while solving problems
Of particular importance to this article, however, is the ability to master yourself first. There is no real value in having a toolkit of ideas, processes, and techniques if you haven’t applied them to yourself thoroughly. No matter how crucial the conversation that needs to be had, if you haven’t done the necessary self-restoration work, you are always going to bring deficiency to the table. Your negative self-talk grows feelings of inadequacy. Your incomplete picture of what is truly going on, in yourself and in others in a situation, impedes your judgement. Any feelings of incompetency erode confidence. Any negative passion clouds objectivity. Any self-pity consumes the ability to think rationally.
If we are going to speak up to others when they disappoint us, we need to get our respective heads and hearts right before opening our mouths. We need to remember always that our perspective has some limitations and biases – as George Carlin so beautifully notes about perception: “Have you ever noticed? Anybody going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” Understanding our own limitations, therefore, enables us to start removing “self” out of the equation and rather focusing on how the issue relates to the organisation’s vision, values, and overall performance. It thus becomes easier to address the issue and chart an effective path ahead whilst retaining integrity in the relationships.
When others disappoint you and once the self-reflection has taken place, you need to create an emotionally safe environment for the conversation. This is about establishing a climate where a balanced conversation can take place. Instead of being absolutely certain about motives or reasons, you should become curious about intentions, slow down, and attempt to gather more data. As such, “we move from judge, jury, and executioner to curious participant” (Patterson et al) and keep the relationship intact.